“The Start-up Nation must include everyone in Israeli society,” Dafna Lifshitz, CEO of Appleseeds Academy, recently told The Jerusalem Post.
This ideal is the driving force behind the organization, which was established in 2000 to bridge the gaps in Israeli society and provide an equal opportunity to the country’s socially disadvantaged communities through the use of technological tools and the development of life skills.
Working together with some of the world’s leading hi-tech companies, such as Cisco, Microsoft, Intel, and Google, Appleseeds Academy has in a short time expanded its activities through all sectors of Israeli society, as well as internationally.
Within Israel, the organization reaches some 100,000 people a year from Eilat to Kiryat Shmona, working to integrate them into the workforce, running youth programs, training educators, and operating community centers, Lifshitz explained.
“One program that is very near and dear to my heart is the NET@ program for youth,” she said. NET@ is a four-year program that aims to reduce the digital gap in Israeli society by providing advanced technological and professional skills to students from the geographic and social peripheries.
To date, the program, established in collaboration with Cisco, the Jewish Agency and the United Israel Appeal, boasts some 5,000 graduates and nearly 2,000 active students in 17 centers of activities located throughout the country.
“We see this as a technological youth movement. We take the ‘rough diamonds’ and through our program they grow to be pluralistic, democratic, social activists giving back to their community,” she said.
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Through the program’s curriculum, the students receive advanced communication technology education and computer literacy training. In addition, the students engage in volunteer projects, such as FIXIT, a computer repair lab to fix old or broken computers that are resold to poor people for a symbolic fee.
And the results speak for themselves.
Some 94 percent of NET@ graduates complete their matriculation exams, compared to the national average of roughly 50% of students, and 65% of graduates go on to serve in prestigious technological units in the IDF.
In addition, the program is the only youth movement that integrates Muslim, Jewish and Christian youth in joint activities, Lifshitz said.
“Through NET@ we really bring together different sectors of society, even if at first families, such as Arab and Jewish [ones], are resistant to the idea, but in the end our alumni, more than the fact that they gain a lot from the program, represent a different Israel than in the past,” she added.
In addition to its work with youth, Appleseeds Academy operates Community Knowledge Centers – a unique concept that the organization has exported abroad to underprivileged communities in Africa.
“We operate some 17 community centers in cooperation with Bezeq in the periphery and only in low socioeconomic municipalities,” said Lifshitz.
Each center is modeled to look like a hi-tech and innovative space. A snapshot from a day in a center reveals computer and employment training for women during the morning hours, while in the afternoon pupils and students arrive to do homework and use the computers, and in the evening the center holds employment training classes for young adults.
While each tech hub has a similar feel, the centers are established in municipalities only after Appleseeds Academy meets with the mayor and formulates a plan specific to the needs of each individual city.
“For example, in Ramle we sat together with the mayor to discuss how we can help the city and increase matriculation certificates and help new olim to integrate into the workforce,” she explained. “In Umm el-Fahm, though, we helped Arab youth and women integrate into the workforce, so we worked closely with the education department in the municipality to reach that end.”
“There are a lot of similarities, for example the employment program, but the aim of each center is to serve the goals of each mayor and municipality and to show the mayor that we create an ecosystem of change that we believe needs to happen in communities,” she added.
The organization and its partners joined the Clinton Global Initiative some three years ago and committed to establishing and operating community technology centers similar to those in Israel in Africa.
In addition, the organization has used its vast knowledge to train teachers throughout Africa, including in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Ghana and Ethiopia, on how to incorporate technology into the classroom.
“We essentially took our model in Israel and copied it to Ghana, but with different challenges,” said Lifshitz. “We also built a plan with US organizations and are involved in the training of owners of centers and work with the local government – much like with the municipalities – to develop a plan, create a budget, to measure success, and to develop new technology programs.”
“We are learning a lot from our activities in Africa and we bring this back to Israel here, and we hope to expand to Zimbabwe and Madagascar in the coming years,” she said.
Lifshitz, who won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Initiatives and Innovation in May 2014 for the organization’s work, said she will continue to expand Appleseeds Academy’s vision and to explore new opportunities both in Israel and abroad.
“It is really important that leading technology firms will join us and their tech will reach the periphery in Israel. It is important to know that our programs deal with coexistence, and technology can really bridge the gap between different population groups,” she said.
“We are always looking to do more, I wish we could do more,” she concluded.
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